Holding Back the Wolves

This week an explanatory tidbit caught my interest: Episode 15 of the podcast, Israel Story, details the touching death of one man married for 37 years, and the narrator says, “Now, according to Jewish tradition, when the funeral falls on Rosh Chodesh, eulogies are forbidden, and during Adar, the month of Purim, it’s actually a mitzvah to be happy and rejoice.”

I don’t know the extent of this practice, but it struck me as both strange and powerful for a community to have such claim over its members that even mourning the death of a loved one would be considered less compelling than traditions of celebration that preserve the community.

My study of historical contexts producing the Bible has made me aware of how predominant are its circumstances of trauma, loss, and suffering. Even psalms of thanksgiving, such as Psalm 118 of this week’s lectionary lesson, exist not because life was actually so great, but as a response to the turmoil of life under threat of foreign emperors, life after assault, death, destruction, and displacement.  Of such psalms, Walter Brueggemann writes that they form a “sacred canopy” for the community to live under. More than simply recalling God’s protective presence, Brueggemann writes, the recitation of praise and thanksgiving are what actively constructs the communal shield against despair.

What happens if we bring this understanding of rejoicing texts to our reading of “Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem,” as it’s commonly called? The gospels are written with the control of Rome and the struggle for Jewish preservation as a key underlying feature of the plot. So here we have Jesus, according to the author, deliberately imitating a prophesy of scripture, styling himself in the manner of a king, but not a warrior king, who would ride a horse, but a king whose interest is peace, as signified through riding a donkey. Among many texts with this association, consider the one Matthew references:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zechariah 9:9-10)

Often the lesson extracted from the Palm Sunday text is how fickle are these people, praising Jesus one week and clamoring for his death the next.  Or how wrong they were, thinking Jesus could be a king in the style of earthly kings. But I wonder if Jesus himself was not so much the focal point as Jesus-with-the-donkey, the symbol of peace. Maybe the crowd’s whooping joined Jesus’ proclamation of peace as a communal exercise erecting a sacred canopy of resistance, pressing against the forces of violence and oppression quite literally surrounding them — you could not pass through city gates of Jerusalem without running a gauntlet of inspectors and soldiers.

Zechariah’s proclamation of peace is brief; it both follows and precedes depictions of war. And in Matthew — how long until the crowds once again engaged the fight and struggle of their daily lives? A few hours? A few minutes?

Life is a struggle; we haven’t yet evolved beyond the reality of Ecclesiastes 3, with its times for mourning and dancing, loving and hating. We have in the scriptures and in communities reciting them a model for enduring hard times through proclaimed commitments to life and hope.

2 thoughts on “Holding Back the Wolves

Add yours

  1. Amy, this is fascinating and beautifully written. I really appreciate the historical context. Understanding some of the cultural context is so helpful in understanding what’s really going on in the Old Testament. It’s easy to forget how much of my own cultural assumptions I take to anything I read.

    The Jewish funeral practices you mention highlight for me how individual-focused modern Western culture is. How do you see our individualism impacting modern Christian faith.


  2. Amy, I really enjoyed reading this even though I am careful not to read the Bible in a scholarly perspective, but instead with the Holy Spirit, who is the great teacher.

    I don’t disagree with your summation. Jesus was/is great at using the natural to do supernatural things. His entrance on the donkey was no different.

    God bless you!


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